A Cultural Mid-life Crisis?

Though we generally think of mid-life as an individual process, as a universal function, it applies to cultural changes as well. The similarities are notable, and Jung’s, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, highlights the parallels.

Regarding the conversion of opposites at mid-life, Jung wrote: “Just as before… disorders arose because… opposing fantasies were unconscious, so now other disorders arise through the repression of former idols.” The shift in focus over the last generation is undeniable; but increases in consciousness also depend on unconscious conditions:

It is of course a fundamental mistake to imagine that when we see the non-value in a value or the non-truth in a truth, the value or the truth ceases to exist. It has only become relative. Everything human is relative, because everything rests on an inner polarity; for everything is a phenomenon of energy. Energy necessarily depends on a pre-existing polarity, without which there could be no energy… Therefore the tendency to deny all previous values in favour of their opposites is just as much of an exaggeration as the earlier one-sidedness.

The point is not conversion into the opposite but conservation of previous values together with recognition of their opposites. Naturally this means conflict and self-division. It is understandable enough that one should shrink from it, philosophically as well as morally; hence the alternative sought, more often than conversion… is a convulsive stiffening of the previous attitude…. the symptoms, the rigidity, the narrow-mindedness… are unpleasant, not to say harmful; for their method of espousing a truth or any other value is so inflexible and violent that their umannerliness repels more than the truth attracts, so that the result is the opposite of the intended good. The fundamental cause of their rigidity is fear of the problem of opposites…”

Though religious fanaticism is an age-old euphemism for the fear of change, its cultural significance has declined since Jung’s time. The swing toward natural science continues to gain momentum since the so-called Age of Reason in the seventeenth century. But, as Jung noted, any conversion has its consequences. The rejection of religious values inherent in the shift toward science, however, is governed by the same general fear of inner opposition as the old extreme…

The brutality of the French Revolution which followed that lofty precursor of western rationalism continued unabated into the twentieth century. Jung wrote during WWI (remember? the War to end all Wars?): “…the rational attitude of culture necessarily runs into its opposite, namely the irrational devastation of culture.” A brief footnote in his 1943 revision reads: “As present events show, the confirmation did not have to wait very long.

“…one or other basic instinct, or complex of ideas, will invariably concentrate upon itself the greatest sum of psychic energy and thus force the ego into its service. As a rule the ego is drawn into this focus of energy so powerfully that it identifies with it and thinks it desires and needs nothing further. In this way a craze develops, a monomania or possession, an acute one-sidedness which most seriously imperils the psychic equilibrium.”

The shift from metaphysics to an “objective” science is the new monomania. Technology, media, and the atrophy of a collective value-system contribute to a paper-meche individualism while denying the subjective factor; contradictory unconscious tendencies whose energy exceeds intent appear only as conscious exaggerations. Ego-values subvert common goals and dissolve group-identities into anonymous aggregates — for those ambitious enough to exploit them. They’re beginnings of a new reality, but to understand what it points to requires a dual perspective  of unconscious functioning:

“The passion, the piling up of energy in these monomanias, is what the ancients called a “god,”… A man thinks he wills and chooses, and does not notice that he is already possessed, that his interest has become the master, arrogating all power to itself. Such interests are indeed gods of a kind which, once recognized by the many, gradually form a “church” and gather a herd of believers about them. This we then call an “organization.” It is followed by a disorganizing reaction which aims to drive out the devil…” The conversion into the opposite “… that always threatens when a movement attains to undisputed power offers no solution of the problem, for it is just as blind in its disorganization as it was in its organization.”

The decline of the Church means evolution, and it moves forward of its own accord. Only self-examination dissolves the projections of unconscious gods onto the ideologies that shroud the real personality. The seeds of their solutions begin with those who find meaning in their self-division; and our “bipolar” natures also provide symbolic solutions beyond conscious ingenuity. To think we would “cure” this condition only adds to the conflicts. Jung wrote of today’s misunderstanding of the psyche:

No matter how beautiful and perfect man may believe his reason to be, he can always be certain that it is only one of the possible mental functions, and only covers that one side of the phenomenal world which corresponds to it. But the irrational, that which is not agreeable to reason, rings it about on all sides. And the irrational is likewise a psychological function…”

This is surely the reason we were cursed with the “disease” of spiritual conflict: to explore the meaning and purpose of development; not just as individuals but as contributors to our evolution. Will we seek solutions to the excess energy of unconscious functioning through yet more technology?

The threat of extinction — the greatest power science owns — may force us to come to terms with it sooner rather than later. The development of unspeakable instruments of destruction implies reason and intent. This must be apparent to a psychology devoted to discovering how our minds work; that’s its business — isn’t it? Or maybe the business is part of the problem.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Psychology

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *